twisted firestarter

From re­spected Fire Cap­tain to se­rial ar­son­ist – John Orr com­mit­ted up to 2,000 arson at­tacks, killing four peo­ple and caus­ing mil­lions of dol­lars worth of prop­erty dam­age

Real Crime - - Contents - Words Dr Abby Ben­tham

Fire Chief John Orr had an un­canny abil­ity to sniff out the source of al­most any fire, be­cause he was the one start­ing them

a unique MO... led ob­servers to dub the un­known ar­son­ist ‘ The Frito Ban­dito’ or ‘ The

Pil­low Pyro’

John Orr didn’t set out to be a fire chief. His am­bi­tion was to be a po­lice of­fi­cer work­ing for the LAPD, at that time the most prestigious force in the USA. His ap­pli­ca­tion was re­jected, how­ever, fol­low­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal test­ing. Un­de­terred, Orr be­came a fire­fighter and sat­is­fied his urge to fight crime by chas­ing down shoplifters and bur­glars in his fire truck. Al­though this made him some­thing of a laugh­ing stock among his col­leagues, no­body could deny that he was an ex­cel­lent fire in­ves­ti­ga­tor. He ap­peared to have a sixth sense where arson was con­cerned and had an un­canny abil­ity for solv­ing in­tractable cases. Usu­ally the first on the scene, Orr could iden­tify a fire’s point of ori­gin and dis­cover in­cen­di­ary de­vices when other in­ves­ti­ga­tors were scratch­ing their heads. So what was his se­cret?

‘ Hot­ter than

500 de­grees’

His ‘ se­cret’ was darker and more ex­tra­or­di­nary than any­one could have imag­ined: Orr was a py­ro­ma­niac, ad­dicted to the sex­ual fris­son and feel­ings of power the blazes gave him.

His ex­pert knowl­edge meant that he could set dev­as­tat­ing fires, both in­doors and out­side, ex­ploit­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions and the volatil­ity of the ma­te­ri­als to achieve max­i­mum dam­age.

As a highly trained pro­fes­sional, Orr knew that cer­tain com­monly found prod­ucts could be ex­tremely dan­ger­ous if ig­nited. This helped him to de­velop a unique in­cen­di­ary de­vice and MO, which would lead ob­servers to dub the un­known ar­son­ist ‘ The Frito Ban­dito’ and ‘ The Pil­low Pyro’. Un­like other ar­son­ists, who typ­i­cally pre­fer to set fires un­der cover of dark­ness when no one else is around, Orr’s crimes took place in re­tail out­lets dur­ing busi­ness hours. He favoured gro­cery stores, hard­ware stores and fab­ric out­lets as places with high foot­fall and a rich repos­i­tory of flammable ma­te­ri­als. His ear­li­est known crimes in­volved the ig­ni­tion of bags of crisps: the high oil con­tent in the snacks and their pack­ag­ing meant that they could be re­lied upon to pro­vide an im­pres­sive blaze. Such an in­nocu­ous item also car­ried the el­e­ment of sur­prise – few peo­ple would ex­pect a rack of crisps to burst into flames dur­ing a busy af­ter­noon’s trad­ing. Orr would later de­scribe such items as “sack[ s] of solid fuel”. Sim­i­larly, Orr en­joyed burn­ing items con­tain­ing polyurethane, a highly com­bustible plas­tic ma­te­rial used in cush­ions, mat­tresses and other ev­ery­day items. It burns with un­par­al­leled fe­roc­ity, emit­ting an eerie hiss­ing noise and pro­duc­ing green- tinged flames.

Orr was ex­pe­ri­enced enough to know that an ar­son­ist can­not just hold a lighter to such items: the re­sult­ing blaze would take hold too quickly, leav­ing the per­pe­tra­tor in dan­ger of dis­cov­ery or even in­jury. So he de­vel­oped an in­ge­nious time- de­lay de­vice that would al­low him to set his fires and get to safety, or on to the next lo­ca­tion on his hit- list. Orr’s de­vice con­sisted of a lit cig­a­rette at­tached by a rub­ber band to three matches and a piece of pa­per. The smoul­der­ing cig­a­rette would slowly burn down, be­fore ig­nit­ing the matches that would set fire to the pa­per. The pa­per would then pro­vide a strong enough flame for the crisps or poly­foam prod­ucts to ig­nite.

Orr’s skills were put to ter­ri­ble use on the evening of 10 Oc­to­ber 1984, when he set fire to Ole’s Home Cen­ter on Fair Oaks Av­enue in South Pasadena, Cal­i­for­nia. The 1,700- square- me­tre build­ing con­tained a house­wares depart­ment, stuffed with just the kind of ma­te­ri­als that

Orr favoured. Min­utes after a col­umn of thick, dark smoke was seen ris­ing from a dis­play rack to­wards the ceil­ing, an in­ferno erupted that de­voured the store. As the fire broke out close to clos­ing time, there were mer­ci­fully few peo­ple in­side and most of them got out with their lives. An­thony Colan­tu­ano, who worked in the elec­tri­cal depart­ment, later de­scribed be­ing blasted through the doors with col­leagues and cus­tomers when the room be­hind him ex­ploded. He was lucky to sur­vive the ‘ flashover’, that hor­ri­fy­ing mo­ment when ev­ery­thing in the vicin­ity of the source of the fire heats to ig­ni­tion point and si­mul­ta­ne­ously bursts into flame. At this point in a blaze, the car­bon that is smoke burns hot­ter than 500 de­grees Cel­sius and ev­ery­thing present is in­cin­er­ated.

Trag­i­cally, when the flashover oc­curred at Ole’s, four peo­ple were still mak­ing their way out of the store. Em­ploy­ees Carolyn Kraus, 26, and Jimmy Cetina, 17, were killed, as were Ada Deal, 50, and her two- year- old grand­son, Matthew Troidl. The bod­ies of all four vic­tims were found just a few me­tres from the exit.

Pro­lific Py­ro­ma­niac

In­ves­ti­ga­tors at­tempt­ing to de­ter­mine the source of the fire were faced with a mam­moth task. Yet after spend­ing just

90 min­utes at the scene, the lead in­ves­ti­ga­tor, Sergeant Jack Palmer, de­clared that the cause of the fire was prob­a­bly an elec­tri­cal fault in the ceil­ing. Had he known that there had been two other fires in lo­cal re­tail out­lets that day, both started de­lib­er­ately and in­volv­ing crisps, he may have looked at the fire at Ole’s more crit­i­cally. And John Orr, as the in­ves­ti­ga­tor called in to ex­am­ine the scene of the ear­lier blaze at Al­bert­son’s Mar­ket, would have been well- placed to ad­vise him that there had been two other ar­sons that af­ter­noon, par­tic­u­larly as he was also on- site at Ole’s, tak­ing pho­to­graphs of the con­fla­gra­tion. But tip­ping Palmer off would have spoiled Orr’s fun.

In ad­di­tion to the feel­ing of con­trol that fire- set­ting gave him, Orr en­joyed hav­ing su­pe­rior knowl­edge to other in­ves­ti­ga­tors. He had gained a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing the best fire sleuth in the area, with an in­stinc­tive feel for how fires would be­have, how they had started and how best to sup­press them. In an in­ter­view with Newsweek in 2007,

Tom Propst, a fire- preven­tion in­spec­tor with Glen­dale

Fire Depart­ment in the early 1990s, de­scribed Orr as “mirac­u­lously fast at find­ing the causes of fires. He could dig through the ashes, nar­row it down and we’d be, like, ‘ Man, you’re good.’” Orr wanted to be the best – and he was – but he also wanted to be given his due, in­di­rectly, for the fires that he caused. When Sergeant Palmer de­clared that the fire at Ole’s was accidental in ori­gin, Orr was in­censed. He con­tacted Den­nis Foote, an­other lo­cal arson in­ves­ti­ga­tor, and re­quested per­mis­sion to as­sist with the Ole’s in­quiry. Orr also asked for ac­cess to Foote’s ‘ Potato Chip File’, a dossier of in­for­ma­tion on fires in­volv­ing crisps or poly­foam prod­ucts that dated back four years. A few days after these re­quests were granted, a sus­pi­cious poly­foam fire broke out at an­other lo­cal store. It was enough to make Foote want to ex­am­ine the scene at Ole’s again, to de­ter­mine whether poly­foam prod­ucts had been a fac­tor there. Un­for­tu­nately, he was too late: a clean- up op­er­a­tion was al­ready un­der­way, and no ev­i­dence re­mained there.

Un­de­terred, Orr con­tin­ued to raise ques­tions about the fire at Ole’s, telling Karen Kraus, the sis­ter- in- law of Carolyn Kraus who per­ished in the blaze, that the fire was un­likely to have been accidental. He also told her that in­ves­ti­ga­tors should have been present at the au­top­sies of the vic­tims, in or­der to in­struct the pathol­o­gist to look for par­ti­cles of polypropy­lene in their lungs or tra­cheas. Orr’s highly un­con­ven­tional be­hav­iour would later be used against him dur­ing his trial for mur­der.

Orr’s in­sa­tiable ap­petite for arson could not be con­trolled. Over the next seven years, he set a stag­ger­ing num­ber of fires in re­tail stores and on hill­sides across a large area. In­ci­dents were clus­tered around con­fer­ences ad­dress­ing the sub­ject of arson. Seven in­ci­dents took place in a four- day pe­riod in Jan­uary 1987, at the time of the Cal­i­for­nia Con­fer­ence of Arson In­ves­ti­ga­tors in Fresno. And a sim­i­lar pat­tern emerged in 1989, when there were six ar­sons over three days co­in­cid­ing with the Sym­po­sium IV Arson Con­fer­ence in Pa­cific Grove.

Brush fires were also at their peak dur­ing this pe­riod, with the Col­lege Hills fire in 1990 be­ing of­fi­cially recog­nised as the worst in his­tory. By the time that blaze had been ex­tin­guished, it had de­stroyed 46 homes, da­m­aged 20 oth­ers and caused more than $ 50 mil­lion worth of dam­age.

13 points of


The dis­parate na­ture of Orr’s crimes and the fact that they were spread over a large ge­o­graph­i­cal area meant that, ini­tially, in­ves­ti­ga­tors did not re­alise that one man was re­spon­si­ble for the crisp fires, poly­foam fires and brush fires plagu­ing the re­gion. The sit­u­a­tion was ex­ac­er­bated by the frag­mented na­ture of polic­ing in the United States: each force jeal­ously guarded the se­crets of its in­ves­ti­ga­tions, and in­for­ma­tion was not rou­tinely shared. To ad­dress this, in April 1991 a 20- strong ‘ Pil­low Pyro Task Force’ was set up and set about li­ais­ing with po­lice de­part­ments across Cal­i­for­nia on crimes that fit­ted the MO of the py­ro­ma­niac.

Among the ev­i­dence col­lected was a scorched sheet of lined yel­low pa­per, re­cov­ered from a fire in a dis­play of dried flow­ers at the CraftMart store in Bak­ers­field, in 1987. Cap­tain Marvin G. Casey of Bak­ers­field Fire Depart­ment, the in­ves­ti­ga­tor as­signed to the blaze in 1987, had iden­ti­fied that it formed part of an in­cen­di­ary de­vice com­posed of a cig­a­rette and three matches. Casey was kept busy that day, as just 30 min­utes after flames erupted at CraftMart, a sim­i­lar fire broke out at Han­cock Fab­rics, three kilo­me­tres away. The rem­nants of a sim­i­lar de­vice were found. The fol­low­ing day

By the time that blaze had been ex­tin­guished, it had de­stroyed 46 homes, da­m­aged 20 oth­ers and caused $ 50 mil­lion worth of dam­age

Casey met with in­ves­ti­ga­tors from Fresno, who de­scribed com­pa­ra­ble fires that had oc­curred in Fresno and Tu­lare. Aware that he may be deal­ing with a se­rial ar­son­ist, Casey sent the ev­i­dence for pro­cess­ing by the Bureau of Al­co­hol, Tobacco and Firearms. Nin­hy­drin so­lu­tion ap­plied to the pa­per pro­duced an ex­cel­lent fingerprint con­tain­ing at least 13 points of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion ( only seven are needed for a print to be ad­mis­si­ble as ev­i­dence). The print found no matches in state or na­tional data­bases in 1987, but when it was checked again by the task force in 1991 it was found to be a match for John Orr. Iron­i­cally, he was iden­ti­fied this time be­cause the check was car­ried out by the LA Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment, whose data­base in­cluded fin­ger­prints not only of crim­i­nals, but also every po­lice of­fi­cer in the state and ev­ery­body who had ever ap­plied for a po­lice job. The LAPD, which 20 years ear­lier had crushed Orr’s dreams of be­com­ing a po­lice of­fi­cer, would soon be in­stru­men­tal in end­ing his ca­reer as both a fire cap­tain and an ar­son­ist.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors ini­tially sus­pected that Orr’s print had trans­ferred to the ev­i­dence ac­ci­den­tally, but with the fire scene in Bak­ers­field some 160 kilo­me­tres away from his base in Glen­dale, this seemed un­likely. The task force was con­vinced it had its man. Sur­veil­lance oper­a­tions at a train­ing event in San Luis Obispo in April 1991 and the Cal­i­for­nia Con­fer­ence of Arson In­ves­ti­ga­tors in Fresno in July and Au­gust 1991 failed when Orr spot­ted a track­ing de­vice on his ve­hi­cle and re­alised he was be­ing watched.

Ul­ti­mately, Orr was fi­nally snared by his stag­ger­ing grandios­ity. The task force be­came aware that Orr had writ­ten a novel about a fire in­ves­ti­ga­tor and se­rial ar­son­ist and that he was try­ing to get it pub­lished. The de­tailed man­u­script was closely based on his own acts of arson, with in­ci­dents, in­clud­ing the fire at Ole’s, only thinly dis­guised. The fi­nal nail in Orr’s cof­fin came on 4 De­cem­ber 1991, when ar­rest­ing of­fi­cers dis­cov­ered the com­po­nents of his sig­na­ture in­cen­di­ary de­vice in a bag in his car.

At Orr’s tri­als in 1992 and 1998, he was found guilty of 29 counts of arson and was also given four con­sec­u­tive life sen­tences for the Ole’s fire. Dur­ing his 1998 trial, Dr. Ron­ald Mark­man, a foren­sic psy­chi­a­trist, ap­peared for the de­fence, and char­ac­terised Orr as a py­ro­ma­niac suf­fer­ing from an ob­ses­sive- com­pul­sive per­son­al­ity dis­or­der. He ar­gued that Orr was com­pelled to set fires in or­der to dis­si­pate the ex­treme anx­i­ety caused by his ob­ses­sive com­pul­sions, and that Orr’s in­abil­ity to ad­mit cul­pa­bil­ity is a fea­ture of his psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tions. Dr. Mark­man gave ev­i­dence that ad­mit­ting guilt would have been “dev­as­tat­ing” to

Orr: “It would de­stroy the or­der­li­ness of his life. It would demon­strate to him that he’s been a fail­ure all of his life.”

Orr is serv­ing life without the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role at Cal­i­for­nia State Prison, Cen­tinela. He con­tin­ues to protest his in­no­cence, claim­ing his con­vic­tion is the re­sult of a gov­ern­ment con­spir­acy.

top Cap­tain John Orr at work as an arson in­ves­ti­ga­tor. He was well re­spected in his field, de­liv­er­ing train­ing to other fire­fight­ers and pub­lish­ing ar­ti­cles in in­dus­try jour­nalsabove Orr in­ves­ti­gat­ing a brush fire, as other of­fi­cers look on. He was known for his un­canny abil­ity to pre­dict and solve arson cases

A fingerprint onthis piece of pa­per, f ound a t thescene of one of the fires, rev ealed13 points of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Thepa per f ormed part of Orr’ s ‘ signa ture’in­cen­diar y de­vice top John Orr, in the court­room of the Crim­i­nal Courts build­ing in Los An­ge­les, just after be­ing found guilty of set­ting the blaze at Ole’s Home Cen­ter that killed four peo­ple

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